Elaine Dundy, The Dud Avocado

Elaine Dundy, The Dud Avocado. First published 1958. Virago Modern Classics 2011

When I think of Paris in 1958 I picture smoky Left Bank cafés filled with proto-beatnik students from the Sorbonne earnestly discussing Sartre and Camus, or the Algerian War or communism. Sally Jay Gorce, the fun-loving protagonist of The Dud Avocado, haunts similar places, carpeted with students in ‘old boots, checkered wool and wild, fuzzy hair’, but she shows little or no knowledge of or interest in intellectual or political life – though she sometimes gets drunk near these intellectuals. Her life revolves around parties and sex, financed for two carefree years by a kindly rich uncle back home in the States.

Dud Avocado coverAs for culture: well, she does pose in the nude for one of the rare artists of her acquaintance who’s got a modicum of talent. More to her taste, as a would-be sophisticate, is the married-with-a-mistress Italian diplomat who plies her with champagne at the Ritz and sex at his bachelor pad – though she admits with typical candour in this breathless first-person narrative that she lacks ‘the true courtesan spirit’. It’s this ingenuous sequence of failures to prove herself as mature and sophisticated as she aspires to be that makes her so charming. It’s that free-spirited, freewheeling voice that propels this novel through a rather silly plot and large cast of characters of varying degrees of decadence and selfishness.

Like a good stand-up comedian, her verve and rapid delivery carry the reader through the less successful jokes and escapades – even the duds (sorry about the pun) are entertaining. Let’s start with the gushing, self-deprecating self-portrait of this Parisian Sally Bowles. From the opening scene we’re told she’s (as usual) inappropriately dressed in her evening gown (it’s 11 in the morning) as her clothes haven’t come back from the laundry. Her hair is the shade of pink ‘so popular with Parisian tarts that season.’

The dialogue she quotes herself as using is as demotic and fizzing as the narrative voice; when Larry, the poised, untrustworthy American friend she meets in this opening scene takes her to task for using ‘ridiculous expressions’ like “Holy Cow!” – the only other Americans he’s heard using such colloquialisms are ‘cartoon animals’ like Micky Mouse – she corrects him: “Micky Mice”, and feels the pleasure of someone who’s just scored a debating point, oblivious to the absence of linguistic dazzle she believes she’s just displayed:

Incidentally I haven’t the faintest idea why I do talk the way I do. I probably didn’t do it in America…Maybe I just assumed it in Paris for whatever is the opposite of protective colouring: for war-paint I guess.

Now that is linguistically smart and insightful. This apparently effortless naiveté our heroine specialises in is what gives this otherwise pretty frothy novel an element of literary solidity: that kind of double-edged innocence takes a great deal of ingenuity and wit to pull off – as if Holly Golightly was being tutored by Dorothy Parker.

Let me give a favourite example of this faux-artless technique; this is Sally Jay musing on her on-off lover, that talented artist Jim, a ‘country boy’ from Delaware, who’d managed to turn Paris from the anguished ‘champagne factory’ of tortured artists into a ‘country village’. After posing naked for him she tells us he ‘smelled like new-mown hay.’ As their affair begins Sally Jay knows he really needs ‘some nice, simple, outdoor bohemian girl’ – she has no idea what he sees in her or she in him:

Jim was a bundle of virtues.

See what I mean about D. Parker. Not surprisingly the relationship with Jim is doomed.

This is her with that diplomat, Teddy, who’s just accused her of being a ditzy bobby-soxer, and she agrees cheerfully:

So he gave up. And in a way I kind of gave up myself. I gave up wondering if anyone was ever going to understand me at all. If I was ever going to understand myself even. Was I some kind of a nut or something? Don’t answer that.

As she says, he should be ‘having witty, elliptical, sexy conversations’ with urbane types, not ‘wasting his time with a sulking, skulking, bad-tempered and very recent schoolgirl.’ Except this narrator is capable of using adjectives like ‘elliptical’, hinting at qualities even Sally Jay doesn’t yet know she possesses deep down. She can show party animals behaving badly (including herself) and reflect on the ‘lubricity’ of ‘these old biddies’. That telescoping of registers is what makes this such a scintillating read – the narrator’s pose of ‘callowness’ enables her to make screwball comedy highly entertaining.

For me the novel was best taken in small doses. Read too much of it and it’s like eating chocolates. But I thoroughly enjoyed those small doses of this nuclear-age Daisy Miller from the New World colliding with a kind of cultural fission with the Old, just emerging from its trauma of the war and finding a new kind of energy and philosophy, but with a transfusion of vivacity from across the Atlantic with this kind of person. Each world benefits and learns from the other, which isn’t always the case in the sober, observing Henry James.

There’s a good lexicographical joke in the final sentence, too.




12 thoughts on “Elaine Dundy, The Dud Avocado

  1. Interesting review, Simon. This is yet another one I have on the shelves unread…. I wonder whether I would find the main character too irritating to deal with. Shades of Holly Golightly, as you say, but maybe elements of Lorelei Lee in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (which I loved back in the day, but might not be so fond of nowadays – who knows?) No doubt I will get to “The Dud Avocado” one day! 🙂

  2. “[B]ut she shows little or no knowledge of or interest in intellectual or political life – though she sometimes gets drunk near these intellectuals…”

    I just showed that to a coworker/writer-editor and he cracked up laughing.

    • Glad you both enjoyed that – and thanks for letting me know. There were some dodgy mixed metaphors in there, too. But the novel was mostly great fun – a change of tone after A. Trollope

  3. I bought a copy of this after someone on Twitter had recommended it to me during an exchange about Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love – it’s still on the shelves, as yet unread. Interestingly, the Anita Loos – Gentleman Prefer Blondes — also came up in the same conversation, so I can understand why Karen mentions it in her response to your review. Irmgard Keun’s The Artificial Silk might make an interesting companion to the Dundy – it’s another distinctive first-person narrative on a similar theme, but the tone is somewhat darker and less frothy. I think you’d find it interesting at some point (if you haven’t read it already).

    • Jacqui: I’ve read neither the Loos nor the Keun, though I saw the MM film of Gentlemen many years ago. Thanks for the tip: I’ll look out for Keun. ‘Frothy’ describes much of the content of this narrative, but the voice, as I tried to show, has glimmers of sagacity and profundity. Or almost Wildean wit; here’s SJ on her stage performances (she’s at times an actor): ‘the question actors most often get asked is how they can bear saying the same things over and over again night after night, but God knows the answer to that i, don’t we all anyway; might as well get paid for it.’ Those colloquial ‘get’ verb phrases only partly disguise the seriousness beneath the wit – which is what distinguishes it from quips or jokes, perhaps. But it’s true that the novel would benefit from a little more darkness to contrast with the light. The unconvincing plot about smuggling and extortion is very half-hearted, not the least dark, even when it tries to be.

  4. I have read this but it must have been so many years ago, before the LiveJournal book blog (brought over into my WordPress one) started, as I reference it in a review of her “The Old Man and Me” in 2008. I remember it being breathless and helter-skelter but very skilfully done, though.

    • Liz: breathless and helter skelter it is, mostly in a good way, though the tone becomes a little tedious if read for too long at a time, I found. Great fun though – apart from the daft plot and tacked-on denouement.

  5. I first read this book when I was close to Sally Jay in age, and have continued to love it and re-read it every few years, and now I am more than old enough to be her mother. SJ’s thoughts on clothes were actually one of the original inspirations for my blog – her categories of her own outfits, and idea that if you wear something continuously it will eventually look good ‘like a stopped clock being right once a day’, and I did 3 entries on the book in the early days… http://clothesinbooks.blogspot.co.uk/search/label/Dud%20Avocado
    … comparing her evening dress & pearls look with Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
    I think there are criticisms to be made of the book, but I will not be the person to make them, I have a sentimental fondness!

  6. Pingback: Recent Reads – Elaine Dundy, John Le Carré, Cesare Pavese and Winifred Holtby | JacquiWine's Journal

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